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Gov.’s task force launches raid at White Hall gaming center

WHITE HALL — Authorities seized 200 machines and hundreds of thousands of dollars from the city’s gaming center on Thursday.

Agents working for Gov. Bob Riley’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling raided the building early Thursday morning seeking illegal slot machines. Alabama Beverage Control Board officers, Alabama State Troopers and Lowndes County Sheriff’s deputies surrounded the White Hall Gaming Center at 6999 U.S. Highway 80, about 24 miles east of Selma.

David Barber, retired district attorney for Jefferson County and director of the task force, said the agency will seek a court date to determine the legality of the machines.

A press conference is set for 10 a.m. today in Montgomery. Officials say they will explain more about the raid.

Authorities took most of the day to remove less than a quarter of the building’s machines. Barber said they would take at least one of each type as evidence.

“We suspect all the machines are illegal, but we’re not going to seize 900 of them,” Barber said.

Rental trucks backed up to the front of the building, and men began gradually loading machines around 11 a.m. Riley’s press secretary Todd Stacy said although laws on illegal gambling had not been enforced before, the governor’s office is now cracking down on violators.

In a press release from Jan. 11, Gov. Bob Riley announced his campaign on illegal gambling.

He cited two cases, which ruled gaming machines that appear to be slot machines illegal.

“Well, the Alabama Supreme Court has already ruled that slot machine gambling, no matter if it’s called “bingo” or something else, is illegal (Barber v. Jefferson County Racing Association, 2006),” he said. “After this ruling, another court ruled specifically that electronic bingo was an illegal slot machine (VFW v. Green, 2008).”

White Hall resident Doris Gresham said she was inside the building when officers flooded in after 5 a.m.

“They were all over the place,” she said.

Gaming center security officer James McBride showed up 10 minutes early for his 8 a.m. shift, and was turned away. He said he noticed officials, including Attorney General Troy King, periodically checking machines for irregularities during the last month.

“It’s supposed to be a charity bingo hall, and whatever charity they represent is supposed to be on the game. And they didn’t see that,” McBride said.

Catherine Coleman Flowers works for non-profit organizations and previously worked in economic development for Lowndes County. She worried about the effects of an indefinite shutdown of the city’s largest employer. More than 100 people work at the gaming center. White Hall has a population of little more than 1,000.

“It’s the economic engine of this town,” Flowers said. “Think about what was here before the gaming center. There was nothing.”

Lowndes County already has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state at 17 percent.

Lowndes County Probate Judge John E. Hulett could not specify the gaming center’s economic contribution to the surrounding area, although he acknowledged the impact is significant. He is also worried about the potential loss of jobs.

“We’re one of the highest unemployed counties in the state, just about, so where’s that going to put us?” said Hulett.